Monday, February 14, 2005

More Intrigue!

The New York Post is reporting (rather cryptically) that Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart is considering leaving USC for the NFL.

The Post has learned that two-time Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart is considering attempting to qualify for the supplemental draft, which would allow him to play in the NFL this fall. Leinart would either have to graduate USC in May or drop out of school to qualify, according to Greg Aiello, the league's VP of public relations.

"The purpose of the supplemental draft is not a means for players to avoid the regular draft," Aiello said. "You have to qualify."

Should Leinart enter the supplemental draft, which would be held in July, the 49ers would have the best chance at the top pick, but it would not be guaranteed. The league would conduct a weighted lottery with teams divided into three categories — those with six or fewer wins, non-playoff teams and playoff teams.

A Southern Cal spokesman told The Post that Leinart, who lost offensive coordinator Norm Chow to the NFL's Titans, has alerted the school that he didn't plan to graduate until after the fall semester.

The Post neglects to mention how they learned that Leinart is "considering" leaving school, but let's assume for a moment that what they're reporting is true. It's not surprising, considering this Bill Plaschke column from last week about Leinart's displeasure over Norm Chow's departure. In it, Plaschke insinuates that the main reason Leinart decided to return for his fifth year was to spend another year learning from Chow. Now, of course, we all know that's not going to happen. So it's not a stretch to assume that Leinart would be upset enough to look into how he could still go to the NFL. (He missed the league's early-entry deadline, which was in mid-January.)

But considering what teammate Mike Williams went through last year with the NFL Draft, we'd be surprised if Leinart really leaves. (It should be noted that if Leinart does qualify for a supplemental draft and decides to leave, unlike Williams, he doesn't have to worry about a court ruling preventing him from playing in the NFL.) Steve Sarkisian, the new co-offensive coordinator, was Leinart's quarterback coach for his first three years at USC, and since Sarkisian spent last season coaching quarterbacks for the Oakland Raiders, he'll be able to prepare Leinart for the next level almost as well as Chow, who, before being hired by the Titans, had no experience coaching in the NFL.

Happier days for Carroll and Leinart

More important -- and again, that's assuming that the Post's report is true -- is the damage the Chow situation has done to the relationship between Leinart and Pete Carroll. When Leinart announced that he was staying, it was clear that Carroll had heavily lobbied his quarterback to remain at USC (much of Leinart's comments to the press echoed earlier statements made by Carroll), but it sounds like Leinart made that decision under the assumption that Chow would still be at USC. If Carroll was -- as most reports indicate -- considering "replacing" Chow before Leinart made his decision but neglected to tell that to his quarterback, it constitutes a major breach of trust between a coach and player who appeared to have a great relationship up to that point.

Leinart is clearly the leader of the team (as well as a bona fide college football superstar), and Carroll can't afford to spend next season butting heads with him. Remember, Leinart just had surgery and will be sitting out spring practice (another reason why he's unlikely to turn pro), meaning that he'll have plenty of time to fester a grudge while sitting on the sidelines watching John David Booty lead the first team offense. If Carroll is smart, he'll do whatever he has to do to make up with his star quarterback -- assuming Leinart stays. If he decides to go pro, well, we all know how Carroll feels about players being irreplaceable, but then again, he did seem to lobby Leinart awfully hard to stay for one more year...

Our guess is that Leinart did inquire about a supplemental draft -- it would be foolish not to investigate all of his options -- which would confirm that he really is upset about the Chow situation. Unlike the rumors about Chow and Carroll, the conflict between Leinart and Carroll certainly seems real -- and we'd wager that it will have a bigger impact than Chow's departure on how the Trojans fare in 2005. That's why, of everything written about the Trojans in the last two weeks, this is the big story.

UPDATE: On Friday, the Daily Trojan ran an item about Leinart possibly leaving:
Bob Leinart, father of USC quarterback and defending Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, denied that his son would petition for a supplemental draft to enter the NFL.

"No, he's not going in the supplemental draft," the elder Leinart said Thursday. "He can't, because he's not taking enough units this semester to graduate. But even if he could go in the supplemental, he wouldn't."
A couple of thoughts. First, as long as Bob Leinart is acting as Matt's spokesman and not speaking of his own accord, we think it's fine that Dad is the one handling talking to the press. Leinart has been dealing with intense media scrutiny for a long time, and there's no reason that his father shouldn't be able to take some of that pressure off of his son. This is a smart move.

Secondly, though it's nice (as a USC fan) to hear Bob deny that Matt is going to leave via a supplemental draft, we don't put much stock in what he says. Nothing personal against Mr. Leinart, but so much has been said and not said since the flareup between Carroll and Chow that words don't carry a whole lot of weight anymore. Mike Williams said last year that he was going to stay at USC, and then decided to go pro. We don't have a problem with that -- athletes, like the rest of us, retain the right to change their minds. But that means we're not naive enough to believe everything they (or their fathers) say.

Finally, Bob Leinart, it seems to us, has got it wrong. He told the Daily Trojan that Matt couldn't go in a supplemental draft because he's not taking enough units to graduate this May. But according to the NFL's Greg Aiello (quoted in the NY Post story), Leinart would be eligible for a supplemental draft if he either graduated OR dropped out of school. Thus, he doesn't have to graduate to leave for the NFL -- there are worse things in the world than finishing a few credits short of a degree from USC, especially when you're making millions of dollars playing in the NFL.

Boi From Troy notes that Leinart left an awards ceremony early to make it back to campus for a class, but we don't take that as a sign of Leinart's intentions. He saw what happened to Mike Williams last year, who was declared ineligible for the 2004 season not because he decided to turn pro, but because even before he made that decision, he had stopped going to class. Leinart's smart enough to know he ought to keep his options open, which means going to class and retaining his NCAA eligibility, regardless of what he's planning to do right now.

That being said, we still don't think that Leinart is leaving. Yes, going in a supplemental draft would be a way of -- potentially -- avoiding ending up with a woeful team like the San Francisco 49ers. But all of the reasons Leinart gave for staying at USC still apply. The only thing that's changed is the presence of Chow and his relationship with Carroll. Leinart knows that Chow isn't coming back (and that he's not likely to end up being drafted by the Titans), and we know that Pete Carroll is too smart to let Leinart remain upset with him. That's why we think Leinart will be back in the fall.

And even if he's not, we'd still bet on the Trojans to win it all.